We have barely had time to process the reality of domestic terrorism and pipe-bombs mailed to political opponents. Now news comes of the assault on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, in the middle of Shabbat morning prayers. This is the deadliest single attack on Jews, as Jews, in the history of our country.
In shock, horror, outrage and sadness, we join people of good will, of all faiths, who are reaching out to the Tree of Life or L’Si mcha Congregation. We send our support to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, its president Samuel Schachner, its membership, and the entire Jewish community of Pittsburgh.
Our first instinct is to say that we cannot imagine what the community is going through. But as a Cantorial colleague just wrote, it is past time we begin imagining it. We must act to protect – or even prevent – something like this from recurring. And to provide support for each other when, inevitably, it happens anyway.
One way you can help now: The Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh has established Our Victims of Terror Fund, to assist with counseling, medical bills, reconstruction and other needs which flow from this horrific act of hate.
We have, now, three things to share. The first is a message for Pittsburgh.
The second is a promise to our own community.
The third is about the basic values which make us who we are. A message for Tree of Life Congregation:
It may be true that nothing will ever take you back to the sense of safety and normalcy you had when you woke up last Saturday morning. Healing will be haltingly slow, and partial at best.
But there is something we have to offer from our recent experience here in the Virgin Islands. There is one thing which might lift you up, if only a little bit. That one thing is, indeed, the love and support of the entire Jewish world, and of so many more people as well. “Hopes and prayers” are, of course, not enough. But a sense of solidarity, of connection, of knowing that people care about you… that can mean something.
For us, that support came in the wake following the full force of a natural disaster, a direct hit from two powerful hurricanes last year. For you, this is something very different. This is not natural at all. This is not water and wind but hatred and wrath.
But the comfort that comes from people coming together, the ways in which we can be there for you… that may resonate with what we went through.
You are in shock. You are in pain and mourning, facing anger and grief. But there is one thing you are not. You are not, and you will not be, alone.
A message for the Virgin Islands, and the Jewish community here:
The outpouring of local support is truly heartening. We so appreciate hearing from leaders of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Baha’i communities, as well as direct offers of support from our delegate to Congress.
Just as we hope to stand in solidarity with Pittsburgh, we feel strengthened and surrounded by love, in how people are reaching out to us.
This kind of attack feels alien, and far away. These islands have welcomed Jews since our arrival here hundreds of years ago; we are blessed to be in a place with no significant history of antisemitism. In fact, we recall the way in which the Virgin Islands government tried to welcome refugees from Nazi Germany in the years prior to the Second World War.
Nevertheless, based on the location of our synagogue, the timing of services, and for a feeling of com-fort and safety, we do have respectful, cooperative and non-obtrusive security at most services and major events. This will continue. And we will coordinate closely with local authorities and private security alike, to take whatever steps may be needed to maximize the sense and reality of safety for our own activities.
We are here – your rabbi, your leadership – in any way, for any further discussion or exploration or sharing of feelings about these events. If you would like to reach me (Rabbi Feshbach), please do not hesitate to do so. My email addresses are [email protected] or [email protected]; the number at the synagogue office is 340-774-4312, and my cell phone is 301-980-5465.
And we ask you to watch for any other events which may develop in the days to come.
Not long ago I heard a phrase which changed my life. Mark Hetfield, executive director of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) observed that:
We used to help refugees because they were Jews. Now we help refugees because we are Jews.
Here is what we know, now, about Robert Bowers, the man who carried out this despicable attack. He had a long history of antisemitic and white supremacy-related rants. But what may have moved him from hatemonger to mass murder was noticing Jewish support for refugees. In particular, he cited synagogues hosting services in support of HIAS as the impetus for his act.
In this, he may actually have one thing right.
Because standing up for others is, in fact, a real and core Jewish value. It is what we do. It is who we are.
No, this does not mean that we all are in total agreement about policies or positions or that we speak with one voice or that we know or all believe the same things about how best to achieve shared goals. Anyone who knows anything about Jews or Judaism knows this is not true.
But whatever different policies we prefer, we know what our attitude and outlook should be. We know that 36 times the Torah commands: care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow… speak for those who have no voice, shield and shelter those who have no protection. Know the heart of the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt!
In this, we invoke, and Jewish tradition demands, a radical empathy. When there were shots and death in a North Carolina church, that was aimed at us. When there were racist riots in Virginia, that was aimed at us. And now, when bullets fly in a synagogue, we expect people of faith and good will everywhere to understand, to “get it.” This is aimed at you.
So, if we were attacked because we stand up for the “other,” well… at least that part is right. Because yes, that is who we are.
It will take more than mere days to clear the air, to sort through the rubble of buildings and emotions.
For now, all we have to say is this:
To the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, you are not alone.
To our community here in the Virgin Islands, we will act with care.
To ourselves and to the world, however… we will not, now, and we will not, ever, through fear or intimidation, we will not back down. Radical empathy. This is who we are.
Confronted with hate or in moments of danger we will not forget that the eternal flame, the lamp we bear is, in fact, the light of love.
Somehow, we wish for peace, in Pittsburgh and beyond. Today and tomorrow and forever.
L’shalom (in peace),
Michael L. Feshbach, Rabbi
Dorothy Isaacs, President